Saturday, February 23, 2008

Coming into the Presence of God?

This is a case study of what I wrote yesterday about conservative / charismatic arguments.

What happens

One aspect of corporate worship which is very important to a lot of charismatics is spending quite a while singing and praising God, for example following John Wimber's pattern of call to worship, engagement, expression, visitation, giving. When done best, the "worship time" also often has prayers, silence and space for individual responses, as well as the opportunity to pray with others.

People find that when they do this, they often feel much closer to God, and are often challenged to live their lives for him to a greater extent, to the point where it can become the dominant element in what Christians do when they meet together.

How it is described

Because people feel much closer to God during this, it is often described in terms of us "coming into God's presence" or God "coming and visiting his people" or "the Holy Spirit coming".

Conservatives tend to hear these descriptions and point out that actually the person's status before God hasn't changed. Because they are often still reacting against medieval Catholicism, saying that performing certain actions gets us closer to God or God closer to us is completely anathema. And to an extent, they're right to say that (but it's worth noting Hebrews 10:15-25, which could plausibly be used in this debate but I've never seen used by either side. I don't think either Heb 10:22 or James 4:8 is talking about contemporary charismatic practice.) So from the conservative point of view, all that changes in such "worship times" is our feelings, not any reality, and hence there's no point to it.

Why it is actually a good thing

But that misses the point, and what is actually going on in "times of worship". Yes, sometimes there is manipulation of affections and induced ecstatic states and so on. But often there is something very important and valuable going on. I'm going to try to give a tentative account in more conservative language of what is going on.

It is good to spend time thinking about God and praising him. It is good to sing to him, and to sing to others about him. Yet our thoughts about God should not be dry and academic - if we think about God accurately, we should be excited about him and delighted in him. If we love God, we should love him, and that is not a merely emotional response, but neither is it less than an emotional response.

Music is a powerful way of thinking about God, because it uses more of us than just saying words does. Good songs should use our minds and our feelings, and our spirits. That means that if we sing about God or to God, we give more attention to him than we would do if we were just saying the same words, so it becomes easier to shut everything else out and focus on him. If we just sing one song then sit down, it is very easy to get distracted by the chairs or the person in front of us or something. So singing several songs in a row can be more helpful. In the same way, spending one minute studying the Bible is usually less helpful than spending 20 minutes, because our train of thought has more opportunity to think about what is being said.

So spending extended times singing about God can help us think about God more fully than having five songs split up by notices or sermons or whatever.

And it is good to prepare ourselves before studying the Bible, or before driving or swimming or anything else. So it makes sense to prepare ourselves before spending time thinking about God (call to worship). Id we are to praise God, it is good to be reminded and to remind each other of what God is like - that is the standard pattern in the Bible (engagement). On considering what God is like, the natural expression of that is to praise him (expression). And it is only to be expected if when praising God and aware of what he is like and his holiness yet nearness to us, we feel that nearness more consciously than when we are distracted by everything else around us.

To my mind it is a shame that those who spend time using extended times of music and prayer to contemplate and praise God do not describe the experience correctly, which leads others to avoid doing it altogether.

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